CW: sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, revenge porn
If you happened to miss the recent media coverage of former Congresswoman Katie Hill, then it might be frustrating to decipher the complexities of the situation—at least it was for me. About a month ago, news broke about the freshman representative’s role in what has widely been described as a “sex scandal.” But like most sex scandals in Washington, or in general, Katie Hill’s recent affair is not clear-cut, provoking questions about consent, abuse, double standards, power, and ultimately, about media coverage and its role in peoples’ lives.
To recap, last month right-wing website RedState (which we will not be linking to here) published a story leaking nude photos of Hill and exposing a polyamorous relationship with her now-estranged husband Kenny Heslep and a younger female campaign staffer—information that Hill claims Heslep provided to the outlet out of spite. He also allegedly released text messages from the campaign staffer that suggest that her relationship with Hill and Heslep was, if not abusive, at least toxic. Adding fuel to the fire, Heslep even accused Hill of having an inappropriate relationship with her legislative director, which she has denied. As a result, on October 23, the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into the allegations against Hill. A few days later, on October 27, she officially announced her resignation on Twitter and gave her final speech before Congress in which she admitted to and apologized for Heslep’s initial charge while defending herself and other women against double standards and subsequent mistreatment.
In the weeks since Hill’s resignation, journalists and politicians alike have commented on her behavior, contributing to the overwhelming news cycle that we are left to interpret. In their articles and tweets, they either defend Hill or they admonish her for putting herself in such a vulnerable position. As the media continues to cover the #MeToo movement, it somehow still manages to oversimplify Hill’s “sex scandal” to fit the story it wants to tell. I think there’s something the commentators are missing: while there are certainly exceptions, left-leaning publications and politicians have tended to highlight Hill’s victimhood, empathizing with her, while right-wing pundits have characterized her as the perpetrator—but it’s not that simple. What if she’s both?
In an article for CNN, writer Brandon Tensley defends Hill as a victim of “uneven standards,” drawing comparisons to the many men in power who have been accused of sexual misconduct without punishment: “[M]en, particularly those of certain political persuasions, are often given redemption arcs, while women who dare challenge norms…are expected to buckle to biases and, ultimately, bow out.” The Washington Post published “What actually mattered in the Katie Hill scandal — and what didn’t,” in which columnist Monica Hesse encourages forgiveness, writing, “Katie Hill was pushed out for all the wrong reasons, but she’s trying to do the decent human thing now.” And several of Hill’s friends and colleagues in Congress, including Representative Ayanna Pressley, spoke out in her favor and tweeted their support.
I have no doubt that so many people who have survived abusive revenge porn felt seen & heard today. You have many more chapters ahead sis & I look forward to all the good you’ll do.— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) October 31, 2019
“We have an entire culture that needs to change and we see it with clarity today” @RepKatieHill
But The New York Times published a story titled “Now Comes the Naked Truth,” in which opinion columnist Maureen Dowd ironically protests against the phrase “OK, Boomer,” instructing other millennials to learn from Katie Hill’s mistakes: “And don’t leave yourself vulnerable by giving people the ammunition—or the nudes—to strip you of your dreams,” she writes, victim-blaming Hill for trusting her husband and “the shiny tools of modernity.”
On the far-right side, RedState initially broke the story (side note: the story’s main authors were former employees of the congressman Hill ousted a year ago), and the Daily Mail leaked her nude photos. Others like Breitbart and the Washington Examiner have targeted Hill for being bisexual and participating in a non-monogamous relationship, publishing stories with headlines including the phrases “#MeThree” and “Swing district.” Last but not least, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, Jenny Beth Martin, told RealClearPolitics, “Katie Hill is learning first-hand why the values we defended when Brett Kavanaugh was being accused are so vital to our society,” which is frankly, just gross.
Looking back, yes, this is partially about the abuse of power. I don’t intend to claim that Hill’s relationship with a subordinate was appropriate. She had a relationship with a significantly younger queer woman who, at the time, she held power over—a former employee who has suggested they had an unhealthy relationship. In texts supposedly released by Heslep, Hill’s former campaign staffer said, “I am terrified of pushing back against you or upsetting you,” and that Hill “isolated” her and “took all of her friends,” all of which are textbook signs of emotional abuse and intimate partner violence. Not to mention, despite Hill’s claims that the relationship was consensual, it’s practically impossible to determine consent when one person’s paycheck relies on the other—as well as unethical.
On the other hand, it’s true that Hill was given a much harsher sentence than most men accused of similar—or dare I say worse—sexual indiscretions throughout all of history, which is valid to note. Our current president, for example, has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct (including rape) by at least 25 women. Yet, as the former sentence indicates, he was elected president, remains president, and has never been investigated on any of these claims—and we all know he’s not the only one. So, yes, Katie Hill’s case is also about double standards. It’s about the double standards that prevent women from seeking office in the first place and these same standards that criticize women in a much harsher light.
Hill has been victimized by public sex-shaming, biphobia, misogyny, and revenge porn—a form of sexual violence that is both journalistically unethical and illegal in D.C. and her home state of California. In her resignation statement, Hill wrote, “having private photos of personal moments weaponized against me has been an appalling invasion of my privacy.” While Hill certainly made mistakes, she was also taken advantage of. And unfortunately, the narrative is almost completely centered on her; her soon-to-be ex-husband faces none of the consequences—yet another symptom of rape culture.
Now that the dust has settled and Hill’s story is almost out of the news cycle, we can look back and see where mistakes were made. Complex and confusing cases like Hill’s make it clear that the media often overlooks intricacies of such stories, especially those relating to sensitive issues like identity and violence. For those on the political right, Hill’s case is somehow being portrayed as a win for them—something that shouldn’t even be considered when it comes to bringing victims of sexual violence to justice. But none of this was about bringing victims to justice in the first place. This was always about revenge, political bribery, and exploiting our culture’s love of harassing, violating, and perpetrating violence against women.